A Quebec company’s offer to help First Nations communities use ground-penetrating radar to find lost residential school graves is meeting with a mixed reaction at best.
While some Indigenous people welcomed the offer of assistance from SNC-Lavalin for what might otherwise be a cost-prohibitive process, other First Nations people were less receptive.
On Monday, Lawrence Aimoe, a member of the Red Deer committee of elders, recalled SNC-Lavalin’s connection to a Liberal government scandal that resulted in former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould being shuffled out of her ministerial position.
The Indigenous member later resigned from cabinet entirely and eventually severed ties with the federal Liberals, sitting as an independent.
Wilson-Raybould — who testified at a 2020 House Justice Committee hearing that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pressured her to intervene in ongoing criminal proceedings against SNC-Lavalin — is one of very few First Nations people to rise to that level in politics — and the Quebec corporation contributed to her downfall, said Aimoe.
“It’s ironic” that SNC-Lavalin now wants to help First Nations people, he said, adding that the offer “was not well received.”
Representatives from Treaty 6 and the Treaty 7 Confederacies could not be reached for comment on Monday.
But Aimoe, a former Red Deer College instructor, gleaned from conversations with several Indigenous leaders that they would rather the Canadian government lived up to its responsibility to help locate the lost residential school graves than leaving it to a private corporation.
A consensus on when ground-penetrating radar and other work should be done must first be determined by dozens of First Nations communities who were impacted by deaths of their young people at government-created residential schools far from home.
Red Deer’s Indian Industrial School is known to have lost at least 70 students through illness, poor sanitation and nutrition. Aimoe said these kids were from multiple communities, from as far as Norway House in Northern Manitoba.
Lyle Keewatin Richards, a member of the Remembering the Children Society, which has been working for over a decade to find and mark the graves at the site of the Red Deer Indian Industrial School, said he would personally welcome Lavalin’s help in expediting this work.
But Keewatin Richards noted many other people are “sitting around the table” with different opinions that must be considered, as this is a highly emotional subject for First Nations communities that have historically lost children.
“These are not archaeological sites, they are grave sites” — so the work must be done with great sensitivity, he added.